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Why Diversity in TV and Film Sound Production Matters

WFTV member, dubbing mixer and sound designer Emma Butt has written an article for our newsletter based on some research she was inspired to initiate due to the shocking lack of women in her field of post-production sound. Emma took a three month period in Autumn 2019 and analysed the breakdown of the sound teams on 36 top rated shows across six broadcasters. Emma’s article makes for sobering reading and really shines a light on the fact that there’s still work to be done around gender and race equality across the industry and in particular in the field of sound. Thanks to Emma for sharing her findings with WFTV in the article below.

I have worked in post-production sound for over 14 years and more often than not, I am the only woman on a sound team and certainly the only person, being mixed race, from an ethnic minority background. After #MeToo and the BLM movement, given the changes that started to happen within the film and TV industry and the push by broadcasters to have more diversity on screen, I had high hopes we would start to see positive changes within sound too. No concrete and real action was taken to address the problem facing craft and technical roles and instead all attention and conversations focused on on-screen talent and directors.

I had been planning for some time to independently analyse the highest rated TV shows across the terrestrial broadcasters for a three month period and show the breakdown of the sound teams, and was incredibly fortunate when Marcus Ryder MBE reached out and offered to let me do this research through The Lenny Henry Centre. I analysed a three month period in the Autumn of 2019. The data relates to 36 top rated shows across six broadcasters (BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky One). In total there were 60 available sound roles across these shows, these were undertaken by a total of 55 people:

  • Only one man identified as mixed race, the other 46 identifying as white.

  • Six out of 55 people identified as women. There was only one re-recording mixer who identified as a woman, they worked only in factual TV. No women were working as re-recording mixers in drama.

  • There were no women of colour working in the 60 available sound roles.

  • Only three people self-identified as having a disability (none of the identified disabilities required physical adjustments to a workplace).

  • Decisions on hiring are influenced by the opinions (or perceived opinions) of people in project management roles. In a risk-averse culture this results in the hiring of the same sound teams.

  • As a result of the inflexibility of existing hiring practices, people from BAME backgrounds have felt the need to create their own companies to progress within the industry.

  • There are no opportunities or schemes currently available for training or progression for post-production sound freelancers.

  • I also interviewed five people as part of my research, two women and three men from Black or ethnic minority backgrounds. For me, the most eye opening account was a Black participant who explained that there have been occasions when meeting new clients about upcoming projects, he has felt it necessary for a white colleague to be present to reassure the clients, as he feels, he will encounter suspicion and resistance: “entering the lion's den […] they’re going to look at me and think is this person fine, look me up and down three or four times and I know it’s not a conscious decision on their part, it’s just part of their programming”.

So how do we address the problem? We work in a risk averse industry so people in hiring positions don't want to take a risk by hiring someone new. The role of assistants has also been completely wiped out in sound and really only exists in picture editing on higher budget productions. We have to address this as we are facing a skills shortage within the next few years. If a person has years of experience in one genre, it doesn't mean they can't add value and skill to your production in another. Support needs to be given at entry level and mid-career. I am currently trying to raise funds to create a scheme which would help both levels get credits, be trained and mentored and most importantly be fully paid at the BECTU rates. The other option is for diversity quotas to be placed on all new commissions and ensure that these quotas include craft and technical roles. Addressing the diversity issue we face in post-production sound is not easy, and will take bold moves to fix a situation that is so badly broken.

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